Illustration of man under umbrella imagining a sunny dayIn large numbers, schools across the United States have implemented Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) to improve school climate and culture. PBIS received strong support from the U.S. Department of Education in its 2014 publication Guiding Principles: A Resource Guide for Improving School Climate and Discipline, which cited the potential of this framework to improve “academic, social, emotional, and behavioral outcomes for students.”

During his presentation at the 12th International Conference on Positive Behavior Support, Robert Horner, co-director of the National Technical Assistance Center (NTAC) on PBIS, noted that 20,384 schools in the United States had implemented PBIS. And it’s not simply an American trend; there is widespread implementation globally with current initiatives in Denmark, Canada, Norway, New Zealand, Australia, the Netherlands, France, Germany, Romania, Qatar, and Italy.

For those unfamiliar with PBIS, it is an organizational framework to assist “school personnel in adopting and organizing evidence-based behavioral interventions into an integrated continuum that enhances academic and social behavior outcomes for all students,” according to the NTAC. Understanding the framework in theory and taking steps to implement it with fidelity are two different things. 

Initial Implementation

This fall marks the eighth year of PBIS implementation at Excelsior Springs Middle School in Excelsior Springs, MO. Establishing a solid foundation for PBIS requires the support of at least 80 percent of your faculty. While it might be tempting to consider a shortcut, effective systems are built on teamwork, trust, and shared values. This takes time and patience. You must honor the process and obtain faculty commitment to implement with fidelity.

The best place to begin when considering implementation is to examine your school’s mission, vision, and values. Commitment to PBIS doesn’t mean the abandonment of what works in your school, or what makes your learning community unique. Rather, successful initiatives are embedded with established structures and supported in annual building plans. Connecting PBIS systems and practices with organizational structures and staff commitment will help maintain clarity about its purpose and drive desired outcomes. 

One strength of the PBIS framework is the emphasis on consensus-building and teamwork. The starting point is the establishment of three to five schoolwide expectations (i.e., respect, responsibility, ready to learn, etc.). Once these core expectations are established, attention shifts to the clarification of expected student behaviors. Once a consensus is reached, these norms are outlined on a graphic organizer or matrix for all stakeholders. (While this matrix is a foundational piece of your PBIS system, it should be revisited annually for any possible revision.)

Another important step for your faculty is determining which problem behaviors will be teacher managed and which will be office managed. What emerges from this process is a shared understanding of how adults will respond to problem behavior and a shared responsibility for taking action. 

Teacher leadership plays a crucial role in the success of your PBIS implementation. Teachers hold the important responsibility of facilitating discussion about schoolwide expectations and reteaching when necessary. Developing a schoolwide (Tier 1) PBIS team that is representative of your staff is essential. Excelsior Springs Middle School has three PBIS teams with distinct roles. The Tier 1 team guides schoolwide supports while the Tier 2 and 3 teams problem solve on the individual student level as the intensity of interventions increases. Each team meets twice a month before school for 30 minutes. Teams are led by teacher leaders, and there are members assigned to multiple teams to support communication across all three tiers. New teachers are assigned to our Tier 1 team to support their induction into the school culture and to develop a strong understanding of PBIS philosophy. 

Data systems play an important role in the successful implementation of PBIS. Similar to monitoring academic achievement, it’s important to develop systems to collect and analyze data about schoolwide behavioral trends. Data analysis should be ongoing and should be discussed as a regular part of your Tier 1 team meeting and your schoolwide collaboration. A strength of the PBIS framework is the degree to which data is used to inform decisions about reteaching, professional development, and the delivery of individualized interventions. 

Excelsior Springs Middle School learned several lessons through PBIS implementation that continue to guide our practice. While PBIS became part of the school improvement plan, other behavior management philosophies were allowed to continue, confusing staff and eroding the fid­elity of PBIS implementation.

Another misstep was the over­emphasis of extrinsic incentives during the first few years of implementation. Acknowledgement systems are an important part of the PBIS framework, but the best incentives really don’t cost much at all. It took a few years for staff to reach this conclusion, but when they did, it strengthened the school’s systems and practices. Some examples of free or low-cost incentives include surprise incentive parties with social time, outdoor games, technology usage, and VIP lunches where students use tickets to earn lunch outdoors with a friend. Incentives also present opportunities to partner with local businesses. We have worked closely with businesses to provide attendance incentives and raffle off gift certificates in support of our PBIS initiative.

Strategies to Help Maintain Momentum

A catalyst for change has been the recognition of student voice. At Excelsior Springs Middle School, if we had to do it over again, we would include students from the very start of our PBIS initiative. Including student voice has strengthened our PBIS implementation and improved the buy-in for our practices by students and staff. Today our student team takes the lead in planning assemblies, welcoming new students, planning social skills and bully prevention lessons, creating movies, and organizing student incentives.  

Social media has played a critical role in sustaining the momentum of the program and celebrating the eff­orts of students and staff. Our school uses a variety of social media accounts to communicate with stakeholders and network with other educators including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and our blog. Additionally, members of our staff develop their capacity through participation in #pbischat, a weekly Twitter chat on Tuesday evenings. Rather than prohibiting and fearing its use, social media should be embraced as a powerful tool to build capacity and improve practice.

The success of your PBIS initiative largely depends on the degree to which you prioritize the capacity building of your faculty and school team. A 2013 study by McIntosh et al. found that “school team functioning, especially the use of data for decision making, had the strongest association with sustained implementation.” Therefore, despite competing interests, it’s critical to commit resources for professional development and specialized training related to PBIS.

To meet staff needs and assess the fidelity of implementation, our school has traditionally administered several PBIS surveys during the course of the year. This fall, schools have the option to streamline that process with the introduction of the Tiered Fidelity Inventory (TFI). The TFI combines all previous PBIS fidelity measures into one user-friendly inventory that assesses all three tiers of implementation.  

PBIS’ Impact on School Culture

The implementation of PBIS can have a profound impact on your school culture and establish desirable conditions for an emotionally and physically safe learning environment. Prior to PBIS implementation, our school of 670 students had over 1,600 office referrals for major problem behaviors. Through the implementation of PBIS and our faculty’s commitment to continuous improvement, this number dropped to an annual average of 435 office referrals over the last four years. A reduction on that scale is estimated to have saved more than 23,000 instructional minutes given the measure of 20 minutes lost per student referral.

At the core of the PBIS framework is a commitment to direct instruction of expected student behaviors and a focus on seeking out and encouraging desired behaviors. Too often our attention turns negative as we observe learning errors or problem behaviors in the classroom. Best practice in PBIS advocates the 80/20 rule for classroom management-with no less than 80 percent of practices being prevention-​based. Most researchers endorse a minimal ratio of 4:1 positive to corrective feedback in the classroom or in a schoolwide setting. Depending on specific student needs, that ratio may need to increase. 

Given the importance of team leadership to the sustainability of a PBIS initiative, it’s essential to prioritize time for team building during professional development. Schoolwide trainings are excellent opportunities to check for understanding and clearly define schoolwide and classroom expectations.  

Strategies to Obtain Feedback and Celebrate Success

Adopting the PBIS framework can be challenging, so it’s important to celebrate small victories and recognize the commitment and efforts of your staff. One way we do this is by honoring a great student of the week. One student is recognized each week for meeting schoolwide expectations and being referral-free. The teacher who provided the acknowledgement for that student is also honored as the great teacher of the week. This is one easy and highly visible way to celebrate the good for students and staff.  

Another strategy that supports positive climate and culture is the sharing of Tiger Pride moments. Acts of kindness are submitted throughout the day by students and staff members alike, and these are shared during afternoon announcements over the intercom. This has proven to be an effective way to emphasize the importance of our three schoolwide expectations of practicing safety, showing respect, and being responsible.  

Keep in mind that the efforts of your PBIS team and faculty need to be recognized throughout the year. The success of implementation largely hinges upon the engagement of your staff. Maintaining a positive staff morale requires intentional planning on the part of school leadership. Our celebrations team works to directly support our PBIS initiative by organizing quarterly student recognition assemblies and planning staff celebrations throughout the year. More than a mere social committee, this team aligns its actions to support the school’s annual building goals and its PBIS efforts. 

When it comes to systems change and sustainable outcomes, there are no shortcuts. Schools considering PBIS, or those in their first year of implementation, should avoid the temptation to move too quickly. By monitoring the actions of your building team and including student voice, your school’s culture, and climate, you should be poised to enjoy the positive outcomes of the PBIS framework. 

Chris Hubbuch is principal at Excelsior Springs Middle School in Excelsior Springs, MO. 

Keelie Stucker is assistant principal at Excelsior Springs Middle School in Excelsior Springs, MO.